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Op-ed: Fix Utah law to protect 'free-range' parenting

Some may consider a child walking to school unsupervised as parental neglect
Some may consider a child walking to school unsupervised as parental neglect

In July 2013, Natasha Felix let her kids — then ages 11, 9 and 5 — play at the park adjacent to her apartment building, peering at them every 10 minutes from her window to ensure things were OK.

A passer-by saw them playing without apparent parental supervision and called a government hotline. Soon a caseworker was at Natasha’s door, informing her she was under investigation for child abuse and neglect. She was cited for child neglect based on “inadequate supervision,” a charge that landed her on the Illinois Child Abuse Registry.

As parents we have different opinions about almost every facet of parenting; discipline, extracurricular activities, appropriate television and how closely they are supervised. With the 24-hour news cycle and social media fueling the view that our kids are in constant danger, it is easy to understand why some parents are more comfortable with very strict supervision. There is room however, for loving, responsible parents to have a less strict supervision structure; more “free range.” (A website called Free-Range Kids curates cases like Natasha’s from around the country.)

Of course there are lines that we can all agree are neglect or abuse, and we can all agree there are times for organizations that protect children to step in. However, having a different opinion does not necessarily make a parent neglectful.

Many adults can happily reminisce about the freedom they experienced as youths, whether riding bikes for hours, walking a couple miles to the mall, or playing at the park until the sun went down. And while it’s easy to feel that there are more threats to children today, the data simply disprove this idea. Fewer children go missing, fewer are struck and killed by cars, and overall child mortality rates have fallen by nearly half since 1990.

Utah’s government, through the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS), rightly has authority to remove children from homes where they are being abused or neglected. But the statutory definition of “neglect” is broad enough that one could claim an unattended child playing at a park a block away from home is being neglected.

Our current law is awfully similar to that in states where egregious overreach has occurred. Even though Utahns haven’t seen the same kind of extreme state actions that branded Natasha Felix a child abuser, we should strengthen the law to protect parents from overzealous neighbors and bureaucrats.

Sen. Mike Lee has offered a good model with which to start. Two years ago he successfully passed an amendment to the Every Student Succeeds Act that ensures the federal government may not “expose parents to civil or criminal charges for allowing their child to responsibly and safely travel to and from school by a means the parents believe is age appropriate.”

The Utah Legislature should take a cue from this leadership and expand upon it, ensuring that state law follows a similar path — protecting parents from neglect charges based solely on allowing their children to walk to school alone, play in the park with friends, or hang out at the mall for an afternoon.

Natasha Felix was actually fortunate, compared to some others. She did not have her children taken from her. Instead, she was forbidden to volunteer at her children’s school and had trouble landing a job.

It took two and a half years of legal battles, but at last the state relented and the Felix family was finally able to put the ordeal behind them. Sadly, Natasha’s is not an isolated story. A father in California was not so lucky, when last week his conviction for child endangerment was upheld because his son walked a mile home from a grocery store.

Loving parents who empower their children to practice and learn from a bit of independence should not be subject to criminal penalties. We all want to protect our children, and sometimes that means protecting them from government agencies that may use flimsy pretexts to undermine parental rights and remove children who are merely experiencing something called “childhood.”

Lincoln Fillmore is a state senator representing southwest Salt Lake County.